Creative Language Development Among Tribal Children: Lessons from Agragamee’s CLDE Project

By: Indira Vijaysimha

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1. The Context

According to the 2013 ASER report1, Rayagada (Odisha), a district with a high ratio of tribal population, was ranked a low 25th out of 30 districts in terms of the percentage of children in class I and II who could read letters, words or more. The district also has the highest percentage of out-of-school children in the 6-14 age group in Odisha. One of the reasons why Adivasi students may be falling behind is because less than 1% of the Adivasi children have the real opportunity for education in the medium of their mother tongues (Mohanty, Mishra, Reddy & Gumidyala 2009). Jhingran’s 2005 study found that students in class V could not express their thoughts freely and coherently even in their home language. Their ability to comprehend a simple unknown text and answer questions based on an understanding of it was very unsatisfactory. Almost no child could correctly answer questions that did not have direct answers in the text.

Teachers would typically rely on the traditional ‘barakhadi’ method where students were first familiarized with all the ‘vyanjans’ (consonants) and the ‘swaras’ (vowels) and next, systematically introduced to the ‘matras’, followed by the introduction to texts, words and sentences, in that order. Children, especially those from tribal communities rarely completed even five years of basic schooling and often left school without being able to read or write. Teachers did not/could not come up with an alternative approach to teaching literacy that could result in better learning outcomes for children in these districts.

State and national level initiatives have tried to address the problems by producing a large number of primers in several tribal languages for the initial primary grades based on the ‘bilingual transfer model’. In most cases, the approach was limited to the publication of textbooks or readers, while components of teacher training, regular academic follow-up and evaluation were not included. Without an adequate grounding in the theoretical perspectives of language and literacy learning and with no teacher preparation, these experiments were bound to fail. Efforts such as the use of bilingual language inventories for teachers or word and alphabet cards for children in the initial months of class I were inadequately supported in terms of teacher preparation and follow up.

2. Agragamee’s Work in Education

Agragamee2, an NGO working with the marginalized and underprivileged communities in the tribal districts of Odisha has sought to address the problems confronting universalization of primary education in tribal areas in several ways, including advocacy, campaigns, and alternative schools in some of the remotest regions of the Odisha state. Over the years, Agragamee has helped more than three thousand children access primary education and go for further schooling in some of the most remote and inaccessible tribal districts. Agragamee’s primary education program in the tribal Blocks of Kashipur in Rayagada, and Thuamulrampur in Kalahandi seeks to develop a model of quality education for tribal children, who are unable to access primary education due to a complex set of reasons, including poverty, systemic failures, and inefficient delivery. The visible and tangible impact of its efforts in education has encouraged Agragamee to develop a program to educate tribal girls – the most educationally deprived section of the population.

2.1 Reading program developed by Agragamee
In the course of their work in education over several years, Agragamee has developed a unique reading and writing program for children in the first three years of schooling. Through this program, children have achieved a great degree of fluency and are easily able to cope with the standard textbooks of the Odisha State by the time they enter class III. The program is well supported in terms of picture books, workbooks and readers that have been developed in-house by the Agragamee Director, Vidhya Das and her team of teachers who work in the schools. This unique reading program has been termed as ‘Creative Language Development Efforts’ or CLDE, in short.

2.2 Building on basic language and learning ability
CLDE draws from the constructivist approach, which perceives learning as a cognitive experience unique to each learner’s own perspective and prior knowledge helping the creation of new knowledge. This approach recognizes that learning occurs through dialogical processes and can only occur if the learner is able to make sense of what is being taught. For a first-grade child, this meaning is essential to help her connect with the classroom process in creative and positive ways. When this does not happen, as in the alphabet-centric way where the child is either made to repeatedly write the alphabets, which she does not understand at all; or when she has to write monosyllabic words with no particular discernible context to connect with the phonetics of the first letters of the words, the child is unable to connect emotionally and cognitively to classroom processes. On the other hand, when the child writes her own name, and that of her family members, or writes the names of everyday objects or animals, she establishes immediate connections with what she is doing. When this exercise is taken forward to writing sentences and known rhymes and the child is encouraged to read what she has written, the child is able to increasingly comprehend the purpose of reading, and becomes self-motivated to decipher the text, and enter into the world of print and writing. The process also creates a whole range of opportunities for children to read, as also to express themselves in various ways, either independently or with other children in small guided reading groups.

Playful processes adopted during the course of teaching, including learning and reciting action songs; drawing and colouring; running the finger across the text of these rhymes in the imitation of reading even if the actual ability has not yet developed; and, playing with picture cards help to acquaint the child with the text and commit it to memory with the least effort. It is well recognized now that play actually facilitates cognitive development. Children not only practice what they already know, they also learn new things. The reading skill thus developed, facilitates further reading and learning on the part of the child, as she is able to associate positive feelings and emotions with the process, built on her own interest and knowledge.

CLDE is based on the premise that every child begins school with the full knowledge of at least one language. To enumerate a few skills involved in this – it means that a child has the ability to understand at least one thousand or more words, complex sentences and sets of sentences which can make a story, or even help her relate an event to another individual. She can also remember names of family members and villages and relate to these to identify the individual or place, including in the abstract, that is, even when the person is not there, or when she herself is away from her village. In addition, most children enjoy rhymes and songs, easily memorising them even when they do not fully comprehend the meaning.

These are skills which are far more complex than those required for basic literacy or reading and writing. And yet, much of the early school learning is hampered by poor literacy primarily because literacy teaching begins with forced memorising of alphabets and does not engage the cognitive faculties of a child in meaning-making. Developing reading and language skills in a child through alphabets or alphabet-centric methods is a negative and uphill task, as the alphabet symbols relate to nothing the child knows. The process of teaching through the first letter method is even more confusing as the child cannot make sense of the rest of the symbols that make up the words.

3. The CLDE Approach

In its work, Agragamee has found that if the traditional alphabet-centric approach is replaced by a more child-centred approach, whereby the learning is through words and objects familiar to child; playful rhymes and songs, which the child can remember; and, names of people close to her, the learning is more organic, thereby, quicker and much less stressful for the child and the teacher.

CLDE is vitally dependent on the following two components:
1. Developing teachers’ pedagogical understanding and skills
2. Production of quality material

This report looks at the effectiveness of the CLDE approach. It is based on field observations and semi-structured interviews.

3.1 Reading and writing
The Agragamee teachers, under the direction of Vidhya Das, began to try out a different approach to literacy education. The initial inspiration for this was based on the writings of Sylvia Ashton Warner. This method referred to as the ‘organic reading’ method, involves eliciting from each student a key vocabulary of words which are of a particular importance to that individual. An adaptation of the ‘organic method’ was thus tried out by introducing children to whole words first. These words were their own names, names of their family members, and names of animals – words from their own context that the children could relate to. In order to facilitate the teachers’ work, a primer ‘Kau dake ka’ has been developed and teachers use this in the classroom along with rhymes and poems.

During the exploratory visit, the researcher did not conduct any structured reading test but was able to observe children from class I to V. Several children who had been to the school for as few as six months were able to recognize whole words and could confidently write each other’s names and did not hesitate to make attempts to decipher words from various children’s books that were available in the school library. This was striking for the researcher, who has a number of years of experience with schools and children. The researcher herself has founded an alternative school in an urban area and was quite impressed by the reading ability of children in this remote tribal hamlet. When children of standard II (with approximately a little over a year and a half of schooling – since the visit was done in December) were asked to write out names of the visitors, they very confidently proceeded to do this. The spellings were not completely correct, but a basic grasp of phonics could be observed. Again, this was not a mean achievement given the general state of low reading levels in these districts. No doubt there was variation among the children’s abilities, but this was to be expected. Also, some children did not attend school regularly and were not as fluent as those who attended more regularly. A majority of the children in standards III, IV and V were able to read and comprehend the state textbooks and could also independently read the newspaper with varying degrees of fluency.

With regard to writing, as mentioned above, even children in the first year of school had begun to form words and displayed a good degree of phonological awareness. Children in standard III were already able to transfer their phonological awareness to English. An excerpt from a student intern’s research report has this to say, “I was looking at the English answer sheets of grade III, saw some invented spellings, like a child wrote ‘yakht’ for ‘yacht’. It could be because even for words starting with ‘c’, say cold, the sound is /k/. Many would think that it’s because English is a complex language that the child got confused but that is not the case here; it means that their phonological awareness is getting developed. Also, the kids in grade V wrote invented spellings for ‘baegona’, ‘pulakobi’, ‘mula’, ‘anda’. Of course, these are not English words but they could write these words according to how they are pronounced. Here, one can see that they are doing both phonological processing and phonemic processing. This is good; the processes and the CLDE program is achieving its aim in not just facilitating the reading abilities but also with regard to phonological and phonemic awareness. With some more guidance and attention, the children will do well. One also has to keep in mind that this is indeed a great achievement because they don’t have a print-rich environment in their homes and in many cases, they are the ‘first generation school goers’. They are just brilliant. A few kids were confused between ‘b’ and ‘d’ and some wrote inverted ‘s’, but that happens even with the kids who are from privileged socio-economic backgrounds.

The display boards on the school’s walls were full of children’s writings, illustrated by the children themselves and this too was a testimony to the way in which the school has developed the children’s reading and writing abilities under very difficult circumstances. The same intern in her report, further writes, “For the next two days, I did a writer’s workshop with the children in Agragamee School. There were a few teachers in the school that day so I took one class and asked them to write anything they felt like. The purpose of this activity was to see if the children are able to try and move beyond writing simple sentences. The ability to read is not restricted to knowing something by constantly reading it; it also opens up their worldview. They read and think back, try to relate things to their lives and anticipate things. The more one thinks of ways of articulating anything that one wants to say or write, the better the vocabulary gets… So, I thought why not the children of grade III ask and IV write something which is an original text and not copied from somewhere or rewritten from a story they already know.

Putting down one’s thoughts on a piece of paper needs a lot of thinking and brainstorming, even we as adults sometimes find it difficult to write something instantly when asked by someone. Those little ones also went through the same thing, they thought and thought, made a rough note and then wrote it on the page I gave them.

For grade III, I showed them a picture where a girl and a boy are enjoying the rain and asked them to write anything that comes to their mind after having a good glance at the picture.

Child ‘X’ has nicely described how beautiful the cloud looks, its colour and formation. The use of words to describe her thoughts was very good. Another child ‘Y’ wrote a story where a brother and a sister were playing in the rain and their mother asks them not to play in the rain or else they will fall sick. But the children didn’t listen to her and she gets angry. Then they apologize to their mother and say that they won’t do that again. But somehow the mother dies, the child didn’t write how the mother dies and the last sentence was that the children go back home and eventually they too die out of hunger because there was no one to cook for them at home.

For grade IV, I asked them to write about anything they feel like, it can be a story or an incident or their life experiences.

Child ‘Z’ wrote a story about a dog and an elephant who are best friends and the elephant catches fish for the dog and then they both cook and eat it, there are small descriptions about the bond between the dog and the elephant which are hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing as I heard the HM read it out for me. Most of the kids in grade IV wrote about their families, the village and the school. These are all indicators to help one understand how well the CLDE method is benefiting the children here.”

3.2 Kui speaking children
The researcher, while observing classroom teaching, noted that in almost every class there seemed to be a small group of children who were either not participating at all or participating much less than the other children. On enquiring, it emerged that often times the quieter children who did not seem to be learning as well as the other children came from homes were Odiya is not spoken and who were not familiar with the language. Since this is not a longitudinal study, it is not possible to say at this time whether these children eventually dropped out of school before completing class V. Anecdotal evidence seemed to indicate that children who did not speak as much as the others and remained quiet in class, also tended to be absent more often and discontinue before completing standard V. The teachers were perplexed about how to work with these children. They did not use punishment or other harsh measures but tended to ignore them. This aspect will be discussed in a subsequent section that deals with teachers and their pedagogies.

3.3 Teacher development
Efforts by civil society organizations and NGOs to improve the education of tribal children are further complicated by the difficulties in hiring motivated and competent teachers willing to work in remote districts. Qualified teachers who manage to clear the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) prefer to take up government appointments. In an ideal world, this would be a good thing and we would expect that children will learn well from these teachers. However, as pointed out earlier and as ASER and other studies indicate, the learning levels of children in the tribal areas continue to be a matter of concern. Moreover, several NGOs, including Agragamee find that teachers with B. Ed or CT qualifications are unable to move out of the formulaic styles of teaching and come up with adaptive and innovative solutions that will improve children’s learning levels. Traditional forms of teacher training and professional development are too top-down and isolated from the school and classroom realities to have much impact on practice.

The de-schooling of teachers and re-skilling them to adopt more constructive approaches was thus a major challenge. This challenge was partially addressed by recruiting fresh youth as ‘Shiksha Sathies’ or support teachers. The first key step in effective teacher development began with the recruitment process. The selection process required applicants with higher secondary or higher qualification to take a written test through which they were assessed for writing proficiency. Only candidates who had good writing skills were selected for the interview. There was a conscious decision to include more women and also to find suitably qualified Shiksha Sathies belonging to the tribal communities. Of the 18 Shiksha Sathies selected, seven were women, six had college degrees and nine belonged to tribal communities.

The Shiksha Sathie development program was based on the following key principles:

• Developing conceptual understanding through discussion and interactive sessions
• Observing children and classroom teaching
• Provision of well-designed curricular resources for the CLDE program
• Providing opportunities to experience the teaching-learning activities
• Planning and teaching in the presence of observers followed by group mediated reflection on the taught lesson (Lesson Study)
• Sustained follow up interactions including on-site visits and support
• Periodic assessment of student learning
• Respect for individuals

4. Findings

4.1 Impact on Students
4.1.1 Removal of fear
The fact that children are no longer afraid of school and are showing more and more interest in coming to school and learning to read has been mentioned many times by the Shiksha Sathies, other observers and children’s parents. This is not a trivial achievement, given that Sathies themselves had experienced harsh and authoritarian schooling as pupils. Children in the project schools were more confident and able to converse freely with visitors. Children themselves reported how they now liked coming to school because the teachers are friendly and learning had become fun. Sathies interacted informally with parents to develop a better understanding of the children and to be more empathetic. They were able to provide both emotional and educational support to their students. Knowing children individually had some interesting consequences as this statement from a Sathie indicated “… earlier there were no attendance records maintained but now during attendance children tell us who is present and who is not.”

4.1.2 Better attendance
Children are more regular in attending school. They are coming to school early and not just for the sake of the mid-day meal. Sathies themselves felt enthused to come to school early when they see the children eagerly waiting to walk with them to school. Children who were enrolled in ashram schools but had come back home since they didn’t want to stay in the hostel, have now started attending the village school regularly.

4.1.3 Improved reading
One clear indicator of the efforts of the Sathies was the progress in children’s reading levels as shown by the mid-line evaluation. Initially, only 11 % of the children were able to score 70% on the reading assessment tests. After about seven months of work done by the Shiksha Sathies, there was a jump from 11% to 46%.

4.2 Impact on Teaching
4.2.1 Focus on the individual learner
Teachers have developed acute awareness and sensitivity towards each child. They no longer talk in general terms about their pupils and were able to track the progress of each child. In an interview, a Shiksha Sathie said, “In class observation, I see who’s paying attention and who is lagging behind or getting disturbed. The children who are lagging behind, we will ask them questions. If we’re teaching them a story, then after the story ends, we ask them one question at least.”

Although this may seem like something that should be the norm for all teachers, it was not the case as evidenced by the classroom observations preceding this study. The teachers delivered lessons standing in front of the classroom and did not seem to observe the children except for the purposes of curbing what they perceived as undesirable behaviours on the part of the children. The shift towards more learner-centric teaching involves in part, the ability to see learners as unique individuals. It also requires the teacher to have the willingness and capability to adapt and modify her pedagogy to meet the learning needs of each child. The classroom interactions of the Sathies indicate that they practice both. Shiksha Sathies are now less inclined to blame children or circumstances for gaps in expected learning and are able to see themselves as empowered professionals who are capable of solving pedagogical problems.

4.2.2 Using child-friendly teaching materials and methods
Before the CLDE teacher training, we could not engage the children. The training helped us understand what interests them and they have started grasping my lessons quicker.” (Shiksha Sathie in an interview)

The CLDE program is premised on the notion that every child is inherently engaged in the process of making sense of the world around her and true education should build upon this natural tendency. Further, the program recognizes that play has a significant place in cognitive development. These two key insights were thoroughly discussed with teachers involved in the program since we wanted the Shiksha Sathies to critically engage with the CLDE process and not mechanically carry out a set of classroom procedures/techniques.

The training focus was not merely to familiarize teachers with the resources and procedures, but to involve them in thinking about the ideas behind the material. This training approach has resulted in two key developments: a) Shiksha Sathies are able to use the resources provided in intelligent ways and can adapt them to the specific needs of their classroom; b) In many cases, the Shiksha Sathies have been able to develop their own TLM and use these effectively in their classrooms.

A Shiksha Sathie had this to say, “I know this at least that I’m no more teaching them the same way. I used to teach them the way I was taught in our primary school. I understood the importance of TLM and class observation… I teach with TLM and story chart which helps children to understand easily, in our time, we did not have these. Playing with children also helps. In the story chart, if one child cannot tell, the other would help him understand. TLM such as animals and birds picture card help. In mathematics, I developed my own TLM with sticks and stones.”

Respecting children’s prior knowledge is one of the key principles of CLDE pedagogy and the Shiksha Sathies are successfully doing this. They have become increasingly proficient in teaching through child-friendly methods using songs from the primers. To reinforce learning, teachers use games and TLM-based activities and are also able to evaluate children’s learning using such play-way activities. This is very much liked by the children.

During one of the training workshops, Shiksha Sathies were introduced to the role of stories and ‘read-alouds’ in the classroom and they have been able to successfully use story-based lessons. Children have expressed their enjoyment of these lessons and it seems to have further strengthened the positive teacher-student relationships. The joyful classroom environment that has been created by the Sathies has inspired quite a few dropouts to return to school.

4.2.3 Addressing linguistic differences
The importance of positively acknowledging the child’s linguistic identity has been an important tenet of the CLDE program. This quote from a Sathie’s interview well captures the importance of acknowledging a child’s language, “When we went to school initially, we went without training. If I asked pupils their name, their address, their mother and father’s name, they wouldn’t respond. I tried to talk to them in Odiya language and they would find it really difficult to understand but after training, the first thing I did was, I started talking to them in Desia (the local language) and it really encouraged them and made for better communication between us.

The CLDE primers are in Odiya language and the expectation was that the Sathies would act as language mediators between the child’s home language and Odiya. After initial encouragement to translate Odiya songs into tribal languages like Kui and Pingo, the Shiksha Sathies are now comfortably doing so. They were sensitized to respect the language spoken by the children and to freely communicate with the children in any language that was understood by them. During a sharing workshop with government officers, teachers and SMC members at Naurangpur, the Sathie explained how Kui speaking children could be helped to learn through the CLDE primer Kau dake ka. “In the first stage, children are asked to identify the pictures using words from their own language. After this, the children are made aware that the Odiya word for the same picture. The Odiya word is written below the picture. The child then says both the Kui word and follows it with Odiya word. After this, the teacher encourages the child to write the Odiya words in her notebook.”

4.2.4 Rising to meet systemic challenges
One major surprise that emerged in the initial phase of the CLDE project was the prevalence of multi-grade situations. The CLDE project had not specifically envisaged this while developing the primers and other TLM. However, once it became apparent that Shiksha Sathies had to work in multi-grade classrooms there was a fairly intense discussion about how this could be handled. They discussed problems and also shared strategies that they had tried to overcome the problem. The focus was on problem-solving rather than on analysing the causes for the observed situation. The Sathies have been able to adapt to the situations they found themselves in and came up with a range of solutions which they freely shared with each other. It is to be noted that during subsequent review/training meetings, the problem of handling multi-grade classes did not feature indicating that the Sathies had figured out ways to manage the situation and continue their work of teaching children to read with comprehension.

5. Conclusion

Among other things, this case study highlights the importance of a lab-school in a teacher development program. Teacher development institutions like DIETS (District Institute of Education and Training) are expected to have lab-schools attached and this case study shows how these have a great potential for serving the needs of teacher professional development.

The overall plan of Agragamee’s CLDE project has proved to synergize well with effective teacher development. The development of the reading primer based on several years of work was able to support the Shiksha Sathies classroom teaching. The workshops helped them understand the concepts behind the CLDE program and also to observe it in practice. In addition to observing experienced teachers at work, the Sathies could also gain some first-hand experience of working with children in an innovative reading program. Regular onsite visits ensured that the Sathies experienced both support and pressure to carry out their work in an expected manner. The second workshop allowed contextual issues to be foregrounded and several solutions to classroom management in a multi-grade situation emerged. More work needs to be done to better understand what the implication of multi-grade situation may have on the CLDE process. There have been some dropouts from the initial cohort of Shiksha Sathies and there is yet no systematic response to the entry of new individuals into the program cycle.

The twin questions of long-term sustainability and scalability loom large on the horizon and there has to be a carefully thought through plan to address both these questions. It would be a pity if the enthusiastic young men and women who are part of the CLDE project at present will have to move out of the field of education once the project ends. How these efforts will feed cumulatively into the education of tribal children is probably the most significant question that needs to be addressed.

As far as teacher professional development is concerned it is important to remember that it is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Once teachers taste the fruits of their efforts, they begin their journey of lifelong learning. To sustain the process and take it forward, we need to think of the following:

• Build and support a community of teachers
• Evolve platforms for teachers to exchange notes and share solutions and innovations
• Make useful resources like articles, teaching journals, books, videos and TLM available
• Provide ongoing support and feedback to teachers
• Nurture teacher leaders


Dr Indira Vijaysimha is with the School of Education, Azim Premji University and works in the areas of teacher development and education for sustainability. This article draws upon her engagement with Agragamee in Odisha.

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